Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Descent of Jesus Criticism

Ours is an age of demogogues in both politics and scholarship.  What counts in a media-saturated era, which has lost patience for substantial debate, and has been infantalized by pop culture, is the sound bite, the crudely startling meme.  Thus a man with no accomplishments, a left-wing ideologue who beats up on America's allies and kisses up to her enemies, is elected to the presidency twice, despite the utter failure of his policies.  But he possesses a voice of smooth modulation and pitch, and speaks with confident, "coolly" derisive tones.  The scum rises to the top on the other side of the aisle now, with a demogogue who (among an endess list of taudry untruths) falsely accuses the former president of his own party of deliberately lying to get us into a war with Iraq -- without a hint of evidence to back up that accusation.  Such antics have put him at the top of the polls. 

Jesus Skepticism has followed a similar downward path of devolution, enabled by Internet memes and self-publishing, along with the sheer bravado and emotional power of the empty bluff. 

The Jesus Seminar was bad enough.  As I showed in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, the scholars who constituted that colloquium committed twelve systematic errors which degraded their scholarship.  They also overlooked numerous qualities in the gospels that make them historically-persuasive texts.  Still, the work of Funk, Crossan, and Borg (less Mack) contained a great deal of value, too: recognition and a keen description of Jesus' spirit of celebration, his fondness for people on the margins, the background of social revolution and oppression in the Roman Empire, even Borg's concept of a "spirit person."  Such scholars were grossly mistaken on many counts, and subject to systematic blindness, but still, they were largely serious men and women who while they misplaced the historical Jesus, did find traces of his footprints in the sand along the Sea of Galilee. 

Then Richard Carrier came along, an Internet sensation and a self-published author.  Carrier earned a doctorate in the History of Ancient Science from Columbia, and talked an academic publisher into printing his twin works on the historical Jesus.  As Machen predicted long ago, liberal scholarship was bound to give rise to extreme skepticism -- the Jesus of the Gospels is simply too much for atheists to take even in small doses.  Carrier thus overlooked not the elephant in the room, but a whole thundering herd of elephants of fulsome evidence within the gospels, in his determination to overthrow the scholarly belief that Jesus was a real person, if nothing else. 

Carrier is at least intelligent and well-read.  His thesis seems, however, to depend on his readers never picking up the books he refers to, because they often simply do not say what he represents them as saying.  His work is perfect for an Internet Age, an age in which original texts are widely available, but few are bothered to read them.  Thus today a lie gets all the way around the world (not just half-ways, as before) while truth is putting her boots on. 

Reza Aslan then wrote the Number One Best-Seller in America, a hatchet-job on Jesus that revealed the "best-selling scholar" not as merely a rookie, but as a phony.  Aslan claimed to have done 20 years of research on the historical Jesus, though there was little evidence of any previous work from him on the subject.  Aslan showed that he didn't even know that the Sea of Galilee was made of fresh water -- among other remarkable whoppers in his best-selling book.

Still, Aslan can at least play a serious scholar on TV.

Yet another step down this slope is Matthew Ferguson, whose scholarly failings I have chronicled here and here.  Even worse was Raphael Lataster.  These young men are graduate students who seem to be learning wrong lessons about scholarship, from the wrong people.  Ferguson compares the Gospels to an obscure work called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer -- an embarrassing and silly comparison, which I skewered here.  In the process of implying that The Contest is a more credible work of history, Ferguson fails to so much as mention that the work was written most of a millennium after the "facts," or that unlike the Gospels, it doesn't even pretend to be historical!  Failing to mention two such game-changing facts is scholarly malpractice of the highest order.  Not to mention dozens of other differences between the Gospels and The Contest which demonstrate why the former are believable and the latter are not -- including some which even members of the Jesus Seminar recognize.  But my most basic criticism of Ferguson is that, for all his study, including in Greek and Latin, he does not seem yet to have really learned how to read and understand what he is reading well

Ferguson at least seems to me to show more intellectual promise than Lataster.  In my critique, I therefore spoke at times as a teacher correcting an errant younger scholar.  Ferguson seemed offended by my tone, no doubt feeling that I was striking an artificial posture.  But as an experienced teacher, I do see the immaturity of Ferguson's work, as well as his potential.  So this was no mere rhetorical posture: were he to learn from the criticism I offered, I believe Ferguson could become a better and more potent critic.   

I saw much less potential in Raphael Lataster's first book, self-published and crude to an extreme degree, but shockingly popular. I don't think I found a single impressive English sentence in the entire book -- or as much as I could stand to read of it.  Even his footnotes were a mess.  His thesis was repudiated emphatically by his own professor.  Yet he managed to get published on the Washington Post website. 

The decent continues, unimpeded it seems by any self-critical sense on the skeptical side. 

A couple weeks ago, I posted a somewhat slap-dash critique of one R Carmona, who posts on a blog called Academic Atheist.    Despite the title of his blog, R. Carmona, an undergraduate student aiming to go on to graduate studies, did not appear in the post to which I responded to have done much if any original research on the historical Jesus.  There was little sign that Carmona had read much ancient material for himself.  I found no original thesis or carefully thought-out methodology.  Rather, Carmona had scanned Ferguson's blog, and taken his arguments as "gospel." as they say.  (Along with some readings, again, from Carrier.) 

Carmona's biggest error was to describe his site as "academic," yet parrot the work of immature, untested, and fringe "scholars" with barely a trace of critical inquiry. 

In short, Carmona wrote an old-style, pre-reform SAT essay, which I am trying to teach my 17 year old students to grow beyond.  He cited two marginal and unproven scholars who think, like Trump, that because they stand outside the "establishment," their motives must be pure, and they alone have found the truth.  He offered a thesis and some slap-dash "evidence" to support it, without worrying about opposing arguments or evidence that might undermine that thesis.  Attack the right enemy with sound-bites that sound good, and the merest patina of what looks at a glance vaguely like scholarship, and many young fools predisposed to your biases seem eager to buy your thesis hook, line, and sinker. 

Real scholarship addresses boldly and fairly the best in opposing positions.  It seeks truth in work that is not personally amenable.  It tests one's thesis not with ad hoc observations, but with an objective and pre-determined set of criteria.  (As I did in critiquing Carrier and Ferguson -- my criteria for doing so were published already in 2005, long before I had heard of either gentleman.  I took on the best of liberal scholarship in doing so, and respectfully pointed out what seemed valuable in the work of Borg, Funk, and Crossan, as well as what I saw as mistaken.)

So I posted 47 criticisms of Carmona's argument on this site several weeks ago. 

Carmona responded at first with outrage.  He began with an obscenity and by misunderstanding my interest in Matthew Ferguson's on-line articles. 

Now he has posted a longer rebuttal, gentler in tone but of little more value in substance. 

I will not pretend to treat Carmona as a debate partner.  He is even younger that Ferguson or Lataster, and looking at his "arguments," I don't find any that are intellectually interesting, still less represent an educational challenge.   He seems to be under the silly impression, for instance, that "arguments from authority" are logically fallacious or inappropriate, a bias that would prove deadly to scholarship in general (and to the Law, not to mention Medicine, and therefore to patients) were it to be accepted.   ("What do you mean, Dr. Crockpuss says I have malaria?   Don't you know it is a logical fallacy to appeal to authorities?") 

Carmona attempts to answer, it appears, even one of my points, without admitting anything or learning anything.  I have no intention of going over them all again.  But I do wish to point to five comments that illustration this general trend.  It is not that Carmona is stupid (as I am afraid Lataster may be), but that atheism has taught him to be arrogant, to assume that his status as a "bright" makes up for his palpable ignorance and lack of skill -- neither of which would be unbecoming in a student, were it not for that error-forcing arrogance. 

(1) Carmona insists, after reading my demurral, that "If the Gospels are shown to be historically reliable, this does not imply that Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is historical."

Of course it does.  If Arrian's account of the death of Alexander is historically-reliable, then it does follow that Alexander's death, as depicted by Arrian, is historical.  In fact, this is a tautology, and it is hard to know what Carmona means by denying it.  He doesn't explain.

(2) I say "there is a great deal of evidence (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and just wait for my new book!) that the gospels DO present eyewitness accounts."

Carmona responds at length:

"What evidence? Give me something to field, something to consider. What are his arguments? How does he support them? Does he engage with scholars who disagree with him? This is essentially a Courtier Reply. This is the same thing John Loftus called you out about. You claim to have read so much and yet you never prove to have any understanding of what you read–even in cases like this one where an understanding of your sources would help to strengthen your presentation. This just looks as though you’re citing Bauckham because the title of his book agrees with your view. It adds no force to your “rebuttal.” Also, there’s no need for self-promotion here. If your book is that great, let it speak for itself when it is published.

"I’m sure Christians think the consensus says otherwise, since many of them seem to have done nothing but indulge their confirmation bias and read what conservative Christian scholars have had to say about this matter. Like the evangelists and first readers, these scholars want to confirm the Christian faith. They never intended to conduct honest research."

How tedious, and how utterly childish. 

I am briefly listing 47 errors in Carmona's article in an informal blog post, between more important projects.  I am not going to spend the time to prove every point I offer: I have better things to do with my time.  But what I say here is true, and it is Carmona's thus-far rudimentary education alone that makes my comment appear false to him. 

Carmona claimed that "the gospels do not present eyewitness accounts" of Jesus' life.  That is a shoddy claim, because it fails to take into account or deal with an extensive work by a major scholar that has won plaudits from (and seems to have convinced) other leading scholars, arguing with a great force of evidence to the contrary.  Mature scholars don't or shouldn't make such glib remarks.  If their claims are contested by leading scholars like that, they should deal with or at least admit the controversy. 

I am not obliged to prove Bauckham's point, to show that Carmona is writing carelessly.  If Carmona wants to know what Bauckham argues -- and he should, if he deigns to write on this subject -- he should read his book, as of course I have, despite Carmona's sleazy insinuation that I merely "claim" to "have read so much" without having any real understanding, and throw out a helpful-sounding title to support my case. 

Indeed, if Carmona were more careful (a scholarly virtue) and did a few moments worth of research (research for scholars is fun, like eating almonds mixed with chocolate for other people), he would have found that exactly four years ago, I reviewed Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on Amazon in enough detail to demonstrate that I had actually read the book.  (Winning, so far, 14 out of 14 "helpful" votes from other readers, one of whom posted to say he bought the book on my recommendation, and found my representation of it accurate.)  So Carmona's snide insinuations about my lazily citing a book I probably had not read because I liked its title, only suggests that Mr. Carmona is himself at present something of a lazy fool.  (A combination of conditions which I sincerely hope he overcomes.  I wish the best to his teachers!) 

Again, Carmona sleazily accuses "these scholars," apparently including me, of never even "intending" to conduct "honest research," which apparently (the boundaries of the accusation are puffy) means we Christians generally don't read opposing points of view.

Yet I met "Carmona" on John Loftus' blog.  John complains not that I don't read his books, but that I do, and post devastating (not that he uses that word) reviews of them on Amazon.  He even tried to "buy me off" by offering to delete one of his reviews of my books, if I would delete my review of his new book. 

The claim that I "never prove to have any understanding of what  I read" is just more childish nonsense.  My reviews on Amazon, largely critical reviews of some of the most important books by writers of many persuasions (including numerous atheists), have received some 13,000 "helpful" votes so far.  Reviews of my books by informed scholars have gone out of their way to say that I describe opposing positions fairly -- even Loftus has admitted that, once or twice.  (While, admittedly, saying the opposite at other times.) 

(3) "Curiously enough, you allude to something important: “they were written when Christians were persecuted.”  That says much about their allegorical style.  Also, your insight meshes better with the idea me and Matthew endorse, namely that the Gospels were written to confirm Christian faith.  More specifically, they were written as means of communication between believers and not as histories to be passed down the centuries."

This is how scholarship goes downhill.   Ferguson may think that a book written during a persecution is likely to be "allegorical:" I haven't seen that particular argument, but I have seen many of a similar confused nature from him.  Allegory is a genre, which can be written under any set of political circumstances: C. S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress, for instance, was written in England between the wars, when Christians were not persecuted severely.   But Carmona has picked up some claim of a link between the literary genre and the political condition from Ferguson, it seems, and forgotten that he needs to at least explain, if not defend, this rather magical and not-at-all-obvious link.

Young scholars often make that mistake: they forget that their readers can't read their minds, and don't see the links they think they recognize as self-evident. 

The gospels obviously are not "allegorical."  As an authority on allegory (yes, this is an appeal to authority), Lewis scoffed at that absurd claim.  But wide reading in various genres will affirm (for those who undertake it) Lewis' point.  Read Pilgrim's Progress, or Regress, and then the gospels, and most minimally-literate people can recognize the mountainous differences between these genres.

Ferguson compares the gospels to "histories," but that is his error.  Scholars often now describe the gospels as bioi, or Greek biographies, not as histories.  Of course they were written to confirm the Christian faith: they are public depositions, as they say themselves.  The fact that someone writes to say something is true, obviously does not by itself imply that it is not true. 
(4) Now notice this sneaky little gambit.  First, Carmona quotes Matthew Ferguson:
The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.
Then he says in his own words:

"Even conservative scholars like Craig Blomberg accept this conclusion, so if you’re the type of Christian to bypass that and say the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might as well continue in your delusions."

I expressed my doubts about this quote:

"What, the author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and The Historical Reliability of John?  I think Blomberg's true views are being misrepresented here. A direct quote would help."

Carmona now provides such a quote:

Craig Blomberg states:

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” Strobel’s The Case for Christ (p.22)

This is the sort of game I hope this young man will learn not to play, so the world can have another honest scholar, rather than another cheap trickster. 

What does "this conclusion" in his first line in blue above refer to?  That the gospels are anonymous?  That their anonymity is widely accepted?  Or that the gospels were written "in distant lands" after a "substantial gap in time" and all the rest that lies in the paragraph after the claim to anonymity? 

Carmona doesn't seem to realize that the most likely referent for his claim about Blomberg's opinion is not the first claim in the prior paragraph, but the whole bloody paragraph.  And the quote he now offers in no way even begins to support that whole paragraph as something Blomberg would accede to. 

Carmona also doesn't seem to recognize the relevance here of Bauckham's demonstration that the gospels used exactly those names archeology shows were most frequently in use in Palestine during the time of Jesus, with remarkably exact coincidence in frequency.  He shrugs that fact off elsewhere in his "rebuttal," arguing (in effect, not an exact quote), "that just shows that people were using those names at that time."  But if the gospels were written in other languages, as he (and Ehrman, for instance) claim, and in lands distant from that in which Jesus lived, why would these fifth or tenth generation copyists manage to reproduce the exact same NAMES used in 1st Century Palestine among Jews of that time and place, in almost precise mathematical frequency? 

The whole scenario goes up in smoke.  Clearly, the gospels were closer to the facts than either Ehrman or Carmona insinuate. 

And (having read and had interaction with him), I think Blomberg agrees with that fully.

Carmona should also know that "strictly speaking" implies even by itself that Blomberg does not think the gospels really are anonymous in a less-strict sense.  If Carmona wants to be a scholar, he should get in the habit of representing opposing views accurately, and not quote-mining and ignoring what Blomberg says next . . . and what is that?  Come on, man, be honest even if you DON'T keep on calling yourself a scholar.  Cite sources fairly and in context.   What did Blomberg say next?  And read my criticism the same way, not culling one early sentence out of the full paragraph to which Blomberg's comment would most naturally refer.

That is what happens when young pups rely on other young pups like Matt Ferguson, who themselves rely on the likes of not-quite-so-young-anymore pups like Richard Carrier, who perceive themselves as radical rebels against an already radical status quo represented by sloppy liberal scholars like Bart Erhman and the Jesus Seminar. 

None of these men need be fools.  But all of them, IMO, need at this point to take active steps to arrest their slide into the mire, the feet of one pushing the back of the next and sending the whole troop cavorting down the slope into intellectual (at least) ruin.